Comedy's Kristallnacht

Richard O'Smith on 'inappropriate' subjects for jokes

This risks being a premature revelation, given there are still several months until the unfurling of Edinburgh’s 2009 Festival programme, but here goes: my proposal for an Edinburgh show is incautiously titled: The Holocaust: A Comedy. However, as a writer I require a comedian to perform it for me, though the Lovely ™ Lucy Porter isn’t yet on board. Which is a shame, as Lucy – notorious puppy-stabber masked by her public image - possesses the indisputable talent required.

As a (and I think we can give the word “struggling” a deserved outing here) struggling (told you) comedy writer, the publicity storm could potentially raise the roof off my career… or house, if the Daily Mail invoke flaming torch-carrying mobs incapable of free thought, marching destructively to my abode.

Staging such a show would ensure immediate press attention, in much the same way as kicking over a hornet’s nest would guarantee hornet attention. This is partly because we appear to be enduring an increasingly repressive press.

Freighted with right-wing puritanism, the newsprint media are ensuring that comedy is enduring a clampdown. There are numerous progressively disconcerting examples of this comedy Kristallnacht: Brand and Ross, Mock The Week, even David Walliams’s choice of Christmas card and now – retrospectively, given it was material from the Eighties - Rowan Atkinson’s utterly harmless routine spotlighting a hapless C of E clergyman. What’s next: Dick Emery’s producer to be held for 42 days for allowing the late comic’s portrayal of a large-toothed vicar? Stone him to death for religious insensitivity.

Galton and Simpson’s proposed 2009 re-make of Hancock’s Half Hour has encountered a BBC brief necessitating the requirement to plane down any potentially offensive material ‘in light of the Jonathon Ross thing’(?!). So it’s material that was deemed acceptable 50 years ago and has continued to be so ever since …until the arrival of the New Puritans.

Perhaps the start of the current clampdown can be traced to Radio 4’s decision to apologise for a Jimmy Carr joke about gypsy moths on Loose Ends, long before we knew Andrew Sachs had a grand-daughter. Unrepentant, Carr subsequently told the Independent: ‘I wish it had been a bigger fuss. If it had been, I would have sold more DVDs’.

I was recently informed by an editor that a gag I submitted about the late Harold Pinter (I proposed that in theatres around the country, audiences paid their respects by holding a one minute pause) ‘wouldn’t be acceptable in the current climate’.

Maybe comedians will be forced to wear crude smile badges sown onto their clothes whenever appearing in public places. Hmmm… how the far right would like that: Clarkson would be spotted in parks and on trams, personally nailing up the ‘Brigstocke, Boyle, Hislop, Brand verboten’ signs. There’s a liberal conspiracy, you see, that justifies required repression.

Anyway, I have to get on with publicising my show: this could involve 1000s of leaflets, posters and man hours engaged in a relentless profile raising exercise, or I could just acquire a phone number for Connie Booth and leave a distasteful message on her answer machine; given Ms Booth has seemingly been ‘resting’ for a while, this could result in a prime-time soap role being offered her way – it’s such an obvious win/win.

So why would just the promise of such a title The Holocaust: A Comedy promulgate media vitriol. Would the outraged have experienced the show before popping out to Flaming-Torches-R-Us? Of course not. Is any subject entirely aloof from humour? Hmmm.. that’s a harder and often booby-trapped question.

Chris Morris’s famous (although others prefer ‘infamous’) Brass Eye episode on paedophilia still generates heat today. Government ministers passed comment, although later forced to admit they had merely read a transcript rather than viewed the programme. Given television is a visual medium – and tonal implication is inseparately salient in comedic delivery (imagine reading a transcript of an Eddie Izzard gig and expect to accomplish an equivalent experience to seeing and hearing his delivery) – this rather devalues the ministerial comment. Is making an ITV drama out of paedophilia any less or more exploitative than a comedy? I re-watched Brass Eye recently, and the episode stands up today due to the over-arching commentary addressing media manipulation ahead of examining the subject itself, proving to be ironically prescient.

Are the industrial scale deaths of the 1st World War appropriate for comedy? One word: Backadder.

Is a nation collectively subjugated during Second Word War Nazi occupation justifiable comedy potential? One word, though repeated (seemingly endlessly by the BBC):’Allo’ Allo! Remember ‘I shall say this only once’ and ‘good moaning’? I shall say this only once: pass poor. Hence you may, or may not, be surprised to learn that a German TV station has bought the rights to screen episodes.

Yet not even the Daily Express would dare attack the subject matter of Dad’s Army as offensive – although it is specifically about World War II’s omnipresent Nazi bomb and invasion threat. Indeed, Dad’s Army appears to be a deification of a British ideal – portrayed quixotically by the British centre-right press as somewhere we’ve regrettably lost the keys to as a nation. Strange – does anyone really wish they’d bring back pompous bankers, damaging state/private school rivalries, lazy stereotyping, casual racism, grumpy policemen and food shortages? Oh, they have.

How about the Stalin purges in post-war Russia that produced a death toll higher than the Nazis? Erudite comic Mark Steel has produced superb cerebral stand-up on this very subject, and accomplished similar with France’s La Terreur.

Humour is a connecting human medium, fortifying shared emotions. When Anne Frank’s school friend heard about the invasion of Holland, she recalls how her father (later to experience the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camps) had dressed up in an apparently convincing Hitler costume, augmented with hair dye and a fake moustache, prior to knocking on the doors of startled Jewish friends residing in the same Amsterdam street. Was it a coping mechanism? Probably. Was it gallows humour? Certainly. But it wasn’t passive humour.

Comedy is capable of launching battery rounds of ridicule against the arrogant pomposity of authoritarian misrule. History reverberates with bellicose warmongers from Bush & Blair, through Saddam and Stalin, back to Napoleon and beyond - yet so does the satire and comedy puncturing their perceived authority. Satire potentially defuses and dismantles the fear leaders seek to utilise in order to control the populous.

Anne Frank herself writes in her diary about how fortunate she was not to see the waking nightmare of the notorious Warsaw ghetto. So surely that would be an inappropriate subject for comedy, a real Springtime for Hitler moment? Mel Brook’s 1983 movie To Be Or Not To Be mines the Warsaw occupation for comedic possibilities.

Remarkably, this was a relatively faithful re-make that originally starred Carole Lombard and another revered Jewish comic, Jack Benny, which appeared in 1942 – during the actual era of the Warsaw ghetto. The movie succeeds in justly ridiculing Hitler and his equally ludicrous ideology. Both are mainstream movies and somewhat affectionate studies, and dutifully reiterate the Shakespearean coda of prick-me-do-I-not-bleed tolerance – though they inevitably airbrush out any imagery of the hideous suffering perpetrated by the Nazis. That is captured in unswervingly horrific detail in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and in between the unrelenting monochrome bleakness, does contain one scene each of both colour and characteristically stoic Jewish humour. Though the trouble with watching Holocaust DVDs – as Ricky Gervais informed the Golden Globes audience recently – is that there’s no blooper reel at the end. See – you can do gags about the Holocaust.

Writing about Anne Frank has correctly approached hagiography status, though a rather too-earnest stage adoption on Broadway in the early Sixtis produced one of the great comedy heckles in theatre history. After a disappointing opening act, a reconvened audience viewed the curtain rise at the beginning of the final act revealing Nazi storm troopers. Unimpressed with the prospect of another tedious hour ahead, one impatient heckler bellowed: ‘They’re hiding in the attic!!

And yet we ridiculed Hitler at the time too, especially when popular songs alleged he was 50 per cent deficient in the bollock department. Although no one’s found it during recent refurbishment at the Albert Hall, medical evidence emerged recently that the popular song was probably correct, as an incident in Battle of the Somme left him monarchic (yeah, you’ve guessed the meaning correctly). In fact, Hitler is now almost exclusively relegated to a figure of fun.

From Charlie Chaplin to Freddie Starr to John Cleese, Hitler has long been reinvented as a slapstick icon, this unlikely destination reached through his malfunctioning humanity, inherent stupidity and inexcusable intolerance: in short, he is ludicrous. And he was ludicrous at the time too, only it’s taken the ensuring years to achieve unanimous acknowledgement (hello to the Daily Mail and their headline supporting Oswald Moseley’s fascism in January 1934 Hurray for Blackshirts’, with Rothermere’s accompanying article praising their ‘common sense’).

Whereas the mainstream press universally attempted to run over Chris Morris with their current bandwagon when he announced a movie project lampooning suicide bombers, The Guardian ran an editorial this month dedicated to celebrating the funding success of Morris’ latest project (one practical repercussion of the media’s proclivity for a witch-hunt against ‘offensive comedy’ was the initial loss of the project’s bank rolling), which stated: ‘Like Swift and the few other truly great satirists, Morris punctures pomp and shines an unforgiving light on his times.’

Ultimately history should be discussed, in any format including comedy, if only to provide a reawakening jolt from our indulgent inertia. Recently I endured a well-dressed City worker on the Tube moaning to a nodding colleague that the crowded carriage rendered sipping her double shot moccachino difficult: ‘It’s like the trains to Auschwitz,’ he commented. What. An. Idiot.

Oh well, probably time to reveal that I’m not planning an Edinburgh show about the Holocaust – best to let sleeping dogs lie rather than deliberately stamp on their tails. No, the whole thing is a hoax (er… I mean the proposed show is a hoax – I’m not as myopic as David Irving). In fact, I’d like to launch my own revisionist’s theory of history: I deny the existence of David Irving, and refuse to acknowledge that he ever happened.

  • Richard O Smith has written gags for The News Quiz, Now Show and other Radio 4 shows. Lucy Porter has never stabbed a puppy and is unimpeachably lovely.

Published: 16 Jan 2009

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